BBC Question Time: factchecked

Published: 1st Jun 2018

Question Time was in Perth this week. On the panel were Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng, Labour MP Caroline Flint, the SNP’s Kate Forbes MSP, Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey also known as Loki, and founder and chairman of Stagecoach Brian Souter. We factchecked claims on whether human rights are devolved, the UK economy’s growth, and Scottish public spending. We're working on a factcheck on pregnancy and deprivation and we'll be publishing it next week.

Abortion, human rights, and devolution

“I fundamentally disagree with the idea of a British Prime Minister imposing whatever her view is on the people of Northern Ireland when it comes to a devolved issue.”

Kate Forbes MSP, 31 May 2018

“It's not devolved human rights, though. Human rights aren’t devolved.”

Caroline Flint MP, 31 May 2018

Human rights aren’t one thing, they are set out and protected by different parts of the law and government.

In general, human rights are a devolved matter for Northern Ireland, like anything that isn’t explicitly kept to Westminster.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 established a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to “keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness in Northern Ireland of law and practice relating to the protection of human rights.”

However, the Assembly and Northern Ireland Ministers must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. They can choose to establish human rights requirements that go beyond the Convention, but they cannot choose to have less human rights.

That rule comes from the peace agreement made to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland, known as the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, which called for safeguards including: “the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland supplementing it, which neither the Assembly nor public bodies can infringe, together with a Human Rights Commission.”

The law on abortion is also a devolved matter. It’s currently covered by the criminal law in Northern Ireland.

How human rights relate to abortion legally is complicated. Many different abortion laws are possible within the European Convention on Human Rights, as the different laws in Northern Ireland, England and Wales and Scotland, and in Ireland show.

Next week the UK Supreme Court will issue judgement on a case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It will decide whether abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights “in failing to provide an exception to the prohibition on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland in cases of serious malformation of the unborn child/foetus or pregnancy as a result of rape or incest”.

Is the UK’s economy growing slower than any other country in the developed world?

“We have the slowest growth in the developed world... that, according to the OECD is the United Kingdom.”

Kate Forbes MSP, 31 May 2018

This seems to be referring to a report released in March by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which projected the UK would have the slowest economic growth in the G20 in 2018. We’ve asked Ms Forbes’s office to check if that was the case.

Since then, the OECD has released updated figures saying that in 2018 the UK is projected to have one of the slowest economic growth rates both in the G20 and amongst a number of other countries outside this group, but not the slowest.

The OECD projects that the UK’s economy will grow by 1.4% this year and 1.3% next year, that’s once you account for inflation. This is higher than, for example, Japan which is projected to grow 1.2% this year and next year.

The G20 describes its members as the “world’s major economies” and includes both developed and developing countries.

What you count as a developed country depends on what measure you look at - the World Bank for example, measures a list of “high income” countries while the UN has a measure for countries with “very high human development.” Some of these will not be included in the OECD’s data.

Would an independent Scotland have to keep the pound and cut public spending?

“But the report suggested Scotland would have to make public expenditure reductions. And also keep the pound. That was a line I read.”

Kwasi Kwarteng MP, 31 May 2018

The Scottish National Party’s Sustainable Growth Commission was set up to consider the implications for the Scottish economy and finances of different scenarios in the event of independence.

It did say that Scotland should keep the pound at least for a transition period. It did not say that Scotland would have to make public expenditure reductions, something another panellist pointed out during the show.

Public spending according to the Sustainable Growth Commission

The Commision sets out its stall saying “Our public finances can be put right sustainably from the unsustainable position we inherit from the UK system at present. And we can do so in a way that continues to grow public spending while stewarding the growth position of the economy”.

We asked Kwasi Kwarteng what he meant and he highlighted the Commission’s view that an independent Scotland should take or inherit responsibility for a share of the UK’s national debt. He pointed to reports of some former nationalists interpreting this to mean that fiscal discipline or austerity would be practised.

Reducing the deficit in the UK public spending has been associated with significant reductions known as austerity, and at least one independence campaigner has reportedly rejected the Commission’s report on the basis that it would lead to “painful cuts”.

This is not what the Commission thinks.

The Commission says that an independent Scotland should limit its public spending to reduce its deficit. It says that spending should be “sufficiently less than GDP growth over the business cycle to reduce the deficit to below 3% within 5 to 10 years”.

At the same time it says that public spending could still continue to grow while following that rule if the Scottish economy grows in line with current trends.

So that is the unknown: if the Scottish economy grew fast enough after independence, then it could increase public spending and reduce its deficit. If it doesn’t, there would be choices between a larger deficit (and so, the independent Scotland’s debt increasing faster), reduced public spending, or higher tax.

The report doesn’t rule out an independent Scotland leaving the pound, but says it shouldn’t happen overnight

“The Commission recommends that Scotland keep the pound “for a possibly extended transition period”. Moving to a new currency would be “based on a governance process and criteria set out clearly in advance of voters making a decision on independence.” While still part of the pound, Scotland wouldn’t be able to set its own monetary policy (things like setting interest rates), which would still be done by the Bank of England.

Any transition to an independent currency would require a “financial infrastructure” to be developed, and happen when it was “appropriate for the Scottish economy”, according to the Commission.


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